Postal uniforms

The postman's uniform is one of the most easily recognised uniforms worn in the UK, and one of the Post Office's most familiar symbols.

The Postal Museum holds many examples of postal uniforms, ranging from larger items such as frock coats, overcoat and capes, to smaller objects such as gloves, caps and ties. This is a brief history of the postman’s and postwoman’s uniform up until the early 20th century.

The Early Years

Royal Mail issued its first uniform in 1784, for mail coach guards. It consisted of a gold braided scarlet coat with blue lapels and a black hat with a gold band.

Moses James Nobbs: (Last of the Mail Coach Guards), Watercolour by H E Brown. c 1890

It wasn’t until 1793 that a postman’s uniform was issued to London General Post letter carriers to celebrate Queen Charlotte’s birthday. Again, this uniform was dominated by the colour scarlet. It consisted of a scarlet tailcoat with blue lapels and cuffs, and brass buttons with the wearer’s number, a beaver hat and blue waistcoat.

19th Century

The trickle down of uniforms beyond London was a slow process. Letter carriers in principal provincial cities were not issued with uniforms until 1834. In 1837 the London “Two Penny Postmen” were issued with a cut-away blue coat with a scarlet collar, a blue vest and a beaver hat.

1855 marked the replacement of the letter carrier’s cut away tail coat by a skirted, scarlet frock coat. The identification number was no longer on the buttons but now worn on the collar, while the beaver hat was replaced by a glazed hat modelled on one used by Parisian postmen. Problems with this hat meant the introduction in 1859 of a hard felt hat, which was replaced by the single-peaked shako in 1862. Other additions to the uniform were the issuing of a waterproof cape to protect the easily soiled coat. But most importantly, the outfit now included grey trousers, something postmen had previously had to provide themselves, and had been ridiculed for the lack of.

1861 saw a significant change in the uniform as it went from being predominantly red to predominantly blue. The new letter carrier’s uniform consisted of a blue frock coat with a scarlet collar, cuffs and facings, with the initials G.P.O. and the wearer’s number underneath being embroidered in white on each side. The waistcoat was made to match the coat in colour, facings, and buttons. The winter trousers were also of blue cloth, with a broad scarlet stripe on the outer seam of the leg.

In 1862, the single peak shako hat was introduced, covered in a dark blue cloth with red piping, and a straight glazed peak.

In 1868, a military style tunic replaced the frock coat and waistcoat. This style was to be constant until 1910.

In 1896, London postmen were issued with a double peaked shako which replaced the single peak. A lighter version was authorised for summer wear.

Winter uniform. London postman of 1904 (POST 118/2059)
Winter uniform. London postman of 1904 (POST 118/2062)

Early 20th Century

In 1910 the Committee on Uniforms reduced uniform entitlements to six classes, corresponding to six ranking grades. This ended the distinction between London and other areas:

Class I – Officers whose duties are supervisory and those who for any reason should be given the best type of uniform.

Class II – Certain grades (i.e. doorkeepers) for whom uniform is somewhat superior to that assigned to remaining classes is desirable.

Class III – Postmen and post women.

Class IV – Porters, liftmen and so on.

Class V – Mail-cart drivers.

Class VI – Boy messengers and others whose duties are connected with the delivery of telegrams.

Around this time it was also decided to move from the tunic-style jacket to a new design based on a “civilian” lounge pattern, which had red piping, but no red collar or cuffs.

Women's Uniform

A small portion of women had been employed by the Post Office for a number of years during the 18th and 19th century as letter carriers, although they were never issued with uniforms alongside their male counterparts.

The first instance of uniform specifically being issued to women occured in 1894, when a waterproof cape and skirt were introduced.

It wasn’t until the outbreak of WWI, when thousands of women and girls were recruited to replace men that were away at war, that a full uniform specifically for women was introduced. The uniform consisted of a blue serge skirt, coat and blue straw hat.

In 1929 postwomen’s straw hats were replaced by a blue felt slouch hat. This hat was later replaced in 1941 by a peaked felt cap.

Further women’s uniform innovation occurred during World War 2, and 1941 marked the introduction of trousers to the postwoman’s uniform.

From the 1940s onwards postwoman’s uniforms echoed the developments in postmen’s uniforms, but with the additions of skirts, fitted trousers, culottes and maternity wear.

A staged photograph of postwomen wearing the Post Office's first uniform (a long coat and straw hat). Some of them hold bikes, one with a fabric basket labelled
Postwoman's straw hat, 1918-1925
Postwomen one of whom is wearing ‘Camerons’, 1941 (POST 56/109)